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After Wikileaks: The Promise of Internet Freedom, For Real

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, December 5 2010

The conflict between Wikileaks and the U.S. Government reminds me of something we've been experiencing for some years now in the private sector of corporate activity and social enterprises. Lots of hierarchical, top-down, closed fortress organizations have been discovering that they need to open up, accept that the internet is dispersing power to the edges and into the hands of free agents, a.k.a. the people who used to be their audience. Think of how internal bloggers like Robert Scoble helped open up and humanize Microsoft's evil empire, or how angry consumer virtual flash-mobs like the one that rallied around Jeff Jarvis's "Dell Sucks" blog post confronted and pried open Dell. Or how netroots bloggers made Howard Dean the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, or how networked "Tea Party" activists generated successful challenges to eight Senate candidates endorsed by the Republican establishment in DC. Smart organizations have embraced these new forces and been improved in the process.

The same dynamic is at work in the challenge Wikileaks has posed to the government, but after years of those same government officials telling us that they "get it" and recognize the need to embrace and nurture networked "soft power"--and even with some of them trying to do it abroad in some cases--suddenly we are seeing the iron fist inside the velvet glove. In the last few days, we've seen a top U.S. Senator intimidate major internet companies into kicking Wikileaks off their services without any serious review; we've seen the government telling its employees they can't look at references to Wikileaks from government computers; and even potential employees are being warned not to say anything about the controversy on their personal Facebook pages for fear of being considered a security risk.

Instead of embracing this new rush of transparency and finally shifting the paradigm of government information from one of hoarding to one of sharing (as Jarvis eloquently argues), the hierarchical organization known as the U.S. Government is reacting the same way every other closed, top-down organization has responded when faced with the radically disruptive and small-d democratic effects of people-powered communication and connection.

Consider just a few of the things Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her celebrated speech on internet freedom on January 21 of this year, in light of current events. I've added some commentary in italics.

  • "The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet." [Indeed, that nervous system is connecting up and watching the powerful like never before.]
  • " many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable." [Ah, "new facts" may make governments more accountable. Go on!]
  • "During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today." [A "ground truth" sounds like something you would hold true wherever you were, right? So, the more freely information flows in and around the United States, the stronger our society gets too? Or, does the free flow of information tear the very fabric of international order, as Clinton said more recently about Wikileaks?]
  • "...the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship." [Have you told Senator Lieberman about blogs and social networks? He apparently needs some new targets.]
  • "Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech." [We, however, would never do that in the United States. But don't try accessing Wikileaks from a government computer, or a Library of Congress computer. Certain kinds of non-violent political speech must not show up in the search results of responsible citizens.]
  • "Realigning our policies and our priorities will not be easy. But adjusting to new technology rarely is. When the telegraph was introduced, it was a source of great anxiety for many in the diplomatic community, where the prospect of receiving daily instructions from capitals was not entirely welcome. But just as our diplomats eventually mastered the telegraph, they are doing the same to harness the potential of these new tools as well." [Our diplomats actually are really good reporters and writers, as the Wikileaks cables show. “What you see are diplomats doing the work of diplomacy: reporting and analyzing and providing information, solving problems, worrying about big, complex challenges," Secretary Clinton recently noted about the leaked cables. But you can't read them, because you don't have clearance.]
  • "Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors."

Indeed. So, while I am not 100% sure I am for everything that Wikileaks has done is and is doing, I do know that I am anti-anti-Wikileaks. The Internet makes possible a freer and more democratic culture, but only if we fight for it. And that means standing up precisely when unpopular speakers test the boundaries of free speech, and would-be censors try to create thought-crimes and intimidate the rest of us into behaving like children or sheep.

And, as Mark Pesce argues brilliantly, it's not like we can make this all go away. The potential for a Wikileaks moment--where a dissenter with the genuine goods of how an imperial organization actually carries out its business leaks that information into the global communications grid--has been inherent for years; now it has arrived. We are all living in a new age. And it does feel like radical changes in how the world works may again be possible.